Smells like Christ | Epiphany | January 6

This sermon contains musical interludes and is best heard (above) rather than read.  Many thanks to Tom Blosser (piano) and Jim Myers (clarinet), and to Rick Leonard for doing a first draft physics fact check, resulting in some editing that makes me sound like I know more than I do about such things.   

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-18

Sitting down a while back to plan this worship series, one of the tasks was assigning which sense would go with which week.  Seeing and hearing could go anywhere, but when, exactly, in the Advent to Christmas to Epiphany plot is it time to taste, to touch, to smell?  Fortunately, the texts help us out.  It’s not every week frankincense and myrrh get hand delivered into the story line.  And so, we finally arrive at the wafting wonder of Epiphany.  A time to breathe in the fresh air of a new year.  Do you smell what I smell?

Do You See What I See?

Matthew’s birth narrative has a distinctly different smell than Luke’s.  Luke has the infant Jesus laid in a manger, a feed trough for animals.  Do you smell what I smell?  Mary and Joseph are soon joined by shepherds who’d been living with their sheep in the fields.  There’s no room for them in the inn, so they share space with non-human creatures, and the mostly- domesticated humans who care for them – and the smells that emit from them.

Matthew speaks of educated foreigners – magi – meeting with royalty – Herod – on their way to visit the Messiah whose star they have seen.  When they find him, he’s in a house, into which they bring their fragrant and valuable gifts.

If one were to have one’s eyes and ears swaddled around with strips of cloth, such that one could only smell what was going on, one would find it very difficult to imagine that these two scenes are related.

Smell involves breathing in molecules, which get stuck in the back of our nose.  Special nerve cells up there differentiate the molecules by firing in different combinations, sending the signal through the brain, which creates the phenomenon of smell.  Things that don’t release molecules into the air, like gold, don’t smell.

Smell is the sense most deeply tied to memory.  Walk into the home where you grew up, and if it hasn’t undergone an extreme makeover, you will be transported through time not so much by what you see, but what you smell.

I like that in order to smell something, one has to actually welcome a tiny part of that thing into one’s body.  To become a place of residence for it.  Our bodily experience of a tiny airborne portion of an Other is smell.

The story of the magi ends with a bursting forth of smell as they open their gifts, the baby Jesus gaining an early core memory of the sweet goodness of those outside his own people.  Tiny molecules from afar, now so near they get inhaled.  But the story begins with something we can’t smell at all.  Something massive and far away.  A star.  The long journey from the east to the house of the Messiah is also a longer journey from the star to the air and bodies inside that and this house.

Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Let us imagine there was indeed a star.  A star that caught the attention of those who give their attention to stars.  They’d been looking for years, decades at the stars.  They have inherited the knowledge, the wisdom, the charts and star-maps of their teachers, and those who taught their teachers.  And those before them.  Generations of those who found wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.

These wise ones were good to have around.  Top consultants for those in power who used such knowledge to administer their domain.  Will it be a good harvest year?  Shall we set out to battle tomorrow, or shall we wait?  When will the rains come?  Shall we build the temple here and how shall we orient its base, design its walls and openings to match the cycle of the seasons?  What are the stars saying?

Let us imagine there was indeed a star, positioned just so in relation to the others, that caught their attention and caused them to pause and consider.

Let us consider that this star was a flaming ball of hydrogen, the most basic of all atoms.  A singular electron dancing around a singular proton.  Hydrogen atoms having formed out of the primordial bursting forth, moving outward in all directions from a singular point of unimaginable density.  At first, isolated and without partnership or pattern.  Then, ever so slowly, drawn together by that gentle and ferocious force of gravity.  At first two and three, then two and three thousand, three billion, then uncountable clusters of uncountable congregations of uncountable atoms of hydrogen.  Individually imperceptible, but collectively incandescent.  So many, so large, so much gravity that these once singular atoms begin to fuse together – an act of creation.  Now two electrons dancing around two protons – Helium.  Fusion gives off photons.  Let there be light, traveling at the speed of itself.  Stars turning on in the vast darkness, Christmas lights strung across the sky.

A star is born.

Let us consider that when this particular star was born there were no eyes yet to perceive it.  No Bradley Cooper to first perceive the quality of its stardom.  To invite it on stage.  No Lady Gaga to step out and sing its light.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it.

Let us consider that the tissues of the eye, the nose, the skin, the vocal chords, are composed of atoms created even further along in the life of a star.  Hydrogen fuses into Helium.  Helium fuses into carbon.  Carbon and helium fuse into oxygen, and we’re on our way to the raw materials that keep you and me alive.  Materials that are you and me.  That combine in a particular way to smell fire and see stars burning.  Bodies that live and breathe, fall in love, and go on journeys.

As the wise ones of our time have informed us, we are the scattered, cooled, and gathered remains of stars no longer seen in the night sky.  Stars now cool as a cat, cool as a sheep lying beside a manger, still glowing with splendor.  Stars still twinkling in the eye of each and every child of the Creator Spirit.

Let us marvel that when the star gazers saw the star, it was scattered, cooled, and gathered star material in human form recognizing itself.  Finding wonder and meaning in these lights through which we mysteriously but predictably move.

We Three Kings

Let us imagine that something in that star caused these star watchers to pack their bags for a long and perilous journey.  This star was leading them somewhere.  Somewhere unknown but essential to their own being.  Someone they’d never met before who would reveal to them a part of themselves they’d never met before.

And so they set off.  When you’re used to looking at stars, unfathomably distant, everything on earth seems nearby.  When you reckon you share the neighborhood with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, everybody on your own planet feels like a neighbor.

Let us note that this star led them first to Jerusalem, the holy city of the Jews.  In Jerusalem they encountered Herod.  Matthew writes: “Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’”

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Bethlehem – a town of such little significance that one of the ancient prophets felt compelled to write: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of the Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

O little town of Bethlehem, from you shall come something like a small packet of molecules sent out into the world, that scatters and lodges in the nostrils of every sentient being, sniffing the new creation wafting in their direction.

Herod is frightened, paranoid, craving power.  Herod understands.  Knows that even something small can change the atmosphere, change brains and minds, shift the wind against him.  Herod, with the heightened awareness of a blood hound, senses threat.  Can smell it miles away.  These magi were used to consulting with those in power.  Sharing their knowledge for the benefit of rulers.  Herod will deploy them for his own purposes.

They arrive in Bethlehem, and come into the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are staying.  It’s the star that has led them here.  They are distant foreigners, Gentiles in a house with Jews.  But when your gaze is as long and as deep as the magi, every place that can be visited feels nearby, every person a neighbor, every child a member of the same family.

And so they behold the Christ child.

What Child is This?

They behold the Christ child.  Son of the stars.  Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus.

Son of Mary.  “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Son of the stars, Son of Mary, Son of the Most High.  The Most High condenses into matter.  The Most High fills the universe with bodies which give birth to other bodies, which give and receive the gifts of one another.

The room fills with the smell of sweet frankincense, and earthy myrrh.  The odorless gift of gold has its own story.  79 protons.  Gold can’t be produced like the lower elements.  Our best current theory is for gold to come into being there must be a catastrophic collision of ultra-dense neutron stars.  That heat creates the higher elements, including gold.  In their deaths those stars create something new not otherwise available.

In that fragrant room there exists the golden possibility of something new.  A body to embody the love out of which the cosmos was formed.  Not an abstract love.  Not the idea of love.  But the incarnation of love.  The enacting of love.  The bringing together of Jew and Gentile.  The welcoming of the leper into the community of the worthy.  The sharing of bread with the hungry.  The embodiment of the eternal flame of love, cooled down to temperatures that lead to life and more life.  A life so dense with the divine that when it collided with the god-like power of Rome, it created, in its death, the higher elements not otherwise available.

Herod does not understand how this works, but he is frightened.  And he has been tricked.  The magi engage in civil disobedience and defy his orders.  They return home by another route.  Their gifts have been left in Bethlehem.  Their eyes now opened to new a world.

Herod launches his pre-emptive strike against the babies of Bethlehem, but Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, get wind of the plans.

Do you see what I see?

Let us imagine the holy family, fleeing for their lives.  The long journey – or short, depending on your scale of space – down to Egypt, to escape the murderous Herod.  Using the newly gifted gold to pay off coyotes who show them the paths around danger, the doors into shelter.  A holy family, myrrh and frankincense hastily packed in their bags, shedding molecules every difficult step of the journey.  The fragrance scatters out from the road tread by refugees and migrants, from the snaking line of humanity searching for safety and secure dwellings.

To smell is to take a small part of the other into one’s own being, to have them register in your own field of experience.

Do you smell what I smell?  It smells like Christ.

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Elizabeth and Mary: A holy trimester | Advent 4

Texts: Luke 1:39-56

This sermon was accompanied with a violin playing “My soul cries out,” Sing the Story 124, and vocals singing “Taste and see,” Sing the Journey 86.

Three months ago we were at Camp Luz for fall retreat.  After a heavy rain on Friday, it was a lovely weekend to be outside.  As usual, we played, ate, sang, talked, and ate some more.  Three of us rode our bikes the 100 miles from Westerville to Camp Luz, on the Ohio to Erie trail, rather proud of ourselves and a little surprised for having made it with no major problems.  On Sunday Jim Leonard reflected on congregational life.  Joe Mas and Linda Mercadante shared thoughts on hiking the Camino in Spain, a lifelong goal fulfilled, a pilgrimage.  After the service, we cleaned up and headed home.  Pulling out from Ravine Lodge, with my own and another bike strapped to the back of our minivan, I backed directly into a tree.  It bent the front wheel of one bike, and the frame of my new road bike.  After the somber 100 mile drive home, I took them both to the bike shop. Two days later we celebrated Ila’s sixth birthday.

That was three months ago.

A lot happens in three months.  The weather has changed.  An election has come and gone.  We turn the calendar, people have birthdays and anniversaries.  Kids get a little older and taller.  Bikes get ridden, bent, fixed, and ridden again.  Then suspended in the garage, waiting for warmer days.

Three months was also the length of our summer Sabbatical.  I suppose a lot happened then, too, but the best part of a Sabbatical is what doesn’t happen.  An extended time away from the normal routine.  Time to rest, to restore, time to be intentionally unproductive.  On Sabbatical, time is much less linear.  For a while there I was losing track of time.  What day is it?  Sunday?  Oh my.  When the Lilly Foundation is paying for it, it’s time to eat lots of good food you didn’t prepare yourself.   Time to take stock of where one’s at in life.  As Luke says of Mary, time to “ponder these things in your heart.”  Prepare to re-engage with a fresh perspective.

In his Gospel, Luke tells the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  Of Elizabeth hosting her cousin Mary at a crucial point in both their lives.  Luke writes, “And Mary stayed with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Elizabeth, as we’ve already been told, is the daughter and wife of a priest, herself a descendant of the priestly house of Aaron.  She was nearing the end of her child bearing years.  In Luke’s way of phrasing it, she was “getting on in years.”  And she’s childless, cause for great distress for a first century Jewish woman.  But she became pregnant with a boy they would name John, who was later known as John the Baptizer.  A reformer.  A prophet.  A martyr.

Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy when Mary becomes pregnant.  Our modern minds may have trouble accepting a virgin pregnancy scenario, but this much seems to be clear enough.  Mary is young, having just become eligible to be married, likely in her early to mid-teenage years.  And Mary is pregnant.  And Joseph, to whom she is to be married, is not the father.

This is bad, bad news for a first century Jewish girl.  Cause for great distress.  To dishonor one’s family’s name.  Had Joseph wanted to push the letter of the law, he could have had her stoned.  According to Luke, Mary doesn’t stick around to find out her fate.  She sets out from Nazareth ‘with haste,’ in Luke’s words, to a Judean town in the hill country.  The home of Elizabeth.  “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”  Pregnant Elizabeth hosts pregnant Mary in her home, for three months.

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In the first month Mary caught her breath.  How long of a journey had it been from Nazareth to the Judean hills, to Elizabeth’s house?  At least 80 miles, perhaps 100.  No day trip, no paved trail with leafy canopy.  No carbon fiber forked road bike, or internal combustion engine.  This was the pilgrims route to Jerusalem, only further yet.  A camino for feet, and, if you’re lucky, a slow animal to carry bundles or bodies.  Finally, finally, Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth and caught her breath.  Rested her feet, slept under a roof for the first time in a week.

In the first month Elizabeth was a priest.  For Mary, the angel’s voice was already fading – It’s assurance that the life within her was holy.  The life within her was holy.  She had repeated this to herself, trying to convince herself it was true.  There was another, more obvious way to interpret this pregnancy.  That it was a curse.  That this brought disgrace on the men of her family, her husband to be.  Shame on her.  And her son would be stigmatized from the start, as illegitimate.  A burden too heavy for anyone to carry throughout life.  An angel’s assurance is little comfort against human cruelty.  Mary needed a priest.  To distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between curse and blessing.  To speak human words with authority.  For Mary, Elizabeth became a priest.  When they greeted one another, the holy life within Elizabeth recognized the holy life within Mary, signaled this with a swift kick in Elizabeth’s gut.  From this place of knowing, Elizabeth’s first words, first words to come out of her mouth, are words of priestly blessing: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed in the fruit of your womb.”  Not cursed are you, doomed are you, unclean are you.  But blessed are you.  Blessed are you, and your child.  So declares Elizabeth, of the priestly line of Aaron.

In the first month, Elizabeth prepared a special meal.  She and Mary sitting down to eat.  Eating for themselves, and eating for the life they carried inside them.  Eating for 2, for 4, for the 5000 who would one day go out to the wilderness to hear Mary’s son — Hungry for grace, for salvation, and for bread.  This small loaf broken and blessed and shared between two, and four, and 5000.  And there was more than enough for everyone.

In the first month, Mary rested.  She made herself at home.

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In the second month Mary imaged herself as Hannah, Elizabeth as Sarah.  Sarah who had born a child for Abraham, for herself, in her advanced years.  Who had given up on her body, and laughed, laughed, at the prospect that it had anything to offer the world.  Sarah who had labored and birthed Isaac, whose name means laughter.  Whose child and grandchildren became the ancestors of all Jewish people.  Sarah, their mother.  Elizabeth, advanced in years, unexpectedly pregnant, now like a mother to Mary.

And Mary was Hannah.  Hannah who faithfully made pilgrimage to the old shrine in Shiloh.  Hannah, who, in her heart, gave her child away to the priesthood, before he was even born.  Hannah whose son Samuel grew in wisdom and stature and guided his people into a new era of kings, and the prophets who called them to account.  Hannah, the poet, who, upon leaving her young child, newly weaned, in the temple where he would grow and she would know him only through her yearly pilgrimage, proclaimed: “My heart exults in Yahweh; my strength is exalted in Adonai….The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.  Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.”

Sarah and Hannah, lives separated by almost a millennium, now united in spirit, under one roof.  Elizabeth and Mary.

In the second month, Elizabeth prepared a simple meal, she and Mary sitting down to eat.  Mary looked up from her bread and smiled, saying, “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  “What?” said Elizabeth, distracted.  Mary pointed at the bread, pointed at herself, pointed at Elizabeth’s swollen belly.  She repeated: “Adonai has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Elizabeth laughed.

In the second month Mary had a dream.  She dreamed she had a daughter, much like herself, whom she held, who played as a child.  She dreamed what she might get her for her sixth birthday, her seventh, her sixteenth.  This daughter would live a traditional life among her family, with her people.  She would grow and be married and have children of her own.  Mary’s grandchildren.  Mary would help provide for them.  Mary dreamed she had a daughter who was by her side when she was old and dying, stroking her hair, comforting her, singing her in to the next world.  There were no angels in this dream.  No “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  No “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  It was Mary’s dream for one night.

In the second month Elizabeth and Mary both lost track of time.

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In the third month Mary finally settled on how to begin her song.  “My soul magnifies Yahweh, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Magnifies, makes larger.  My soul magnifies Yahweh.  Adonai was larger in this world because of her.  She loved this.  She had accepted, decided, that she was, as Elizabeth had declared, blessed.  Not only now, but always.  She always had been, and always would be blessed.  There was nothing that could ever change this one foundational truth.  Her song continued: “Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  And from this blessedness, the whole world shifted.  “Yah has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  Yah has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. Yah has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  So said Hannah of old.  So said the young Mary.  This was not a dream.  What’s is this? Elizabeth asked.   This is my fight song said Mary.

In the third month Elizabeth couldn’t sleep.  It was her ninth month.  She was uncomfortable.  The child too large now to have any room to kick.  It was time, and Elizabeth was ready.

In the third month they shared a meal.  Elizabeth blessed the bread and broke it.  She gave it to Mary.  Mary ate.  Mary put her hand on her middle and spoke to the life forming inside her.  She said, “This is my body, which is for you.”  Mary drank the cup and whispered, “This is my blood, my covenant with you.  As often your heart beats, do so in remembrance of me.”

In the third month, Mary prepared to leave.  The hardest pilgrimage to make is the one that takes you back home.  But it was time.  Mary pondered all these things in her heart.

 

 

“There will be signs” | December 2 | Advent 1

Texts: Luke 21:25-36; Jeremiah 33:14-16

1963 was the 100 year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The Civil Rights movement was in full swing.  That year King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  President Kennedy addressed the nation about why he sent the National Guard to help protect two black students at the University of Alabama.  There was the March on Washington with its “I have a dream speech,” the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killing four black girls.  President Kennedy was assassinated.  And, in 1963, African American writer James Baldwin wrote an essay, addressed to his 15 year old nephew, trying to explain why so many white folks were responding to all this with such fear.

To his teenage nephew, coming of age in this world, Baldwin writes this:

 “Try to imagine how you would feel, if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”  — from The Fire Next Time.

I don’t know if James Baldwin had Luke’s gospel open as he wrote, but his words echo those of Jesus.

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  Luke 21:25-26

Jesus speaks these words having just been in the temple – that solid, fixed star in the life of his beloved people.  The place where the symbols of cosmic meaning were etched in stone, enacted through ritual.  Where earth touched heaven.

Luke is almost certainly writing his gospel after 70CE, the year the Romans destroyed the temple.   These words of Jesus speak into this time of disorientation and upheaval.  “Not one stone left upon another,” Jesus had said earlier.  “The powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

When what you thought was solid and fixed moves out of place, then what?  When the unshakeable is shaken, where does that leave you and your little life?

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2018 is not yet over, but on the church calendar, this is day one of a new liturgical year.  Without fail, I’m always a bit taken aback that these are the words and images to begin Advent.  They are startling, especially when one is expecting tidings of comfort and joy.  I’m yet to see a Hallmark card with the greeting: “May your season be filled with fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world”…flip to the inside…”for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”  If you’re still looking for a tagline for your family holiday cards, it’s not too late.

How to greet these words that beckon us into this new season?  Especially when they sound eerily close to summarizing the recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Is this a meltdown?  An unravelling?

A shake up?  A shakedown?

A crash?  A market correction?

Jesus’ words are by no means a direct forecast of our present predicament, but apparently there are some common themes that connect 70CE, 1963, and 2018CE: Disorientation, loss, grief, confusion, fear.  Solid things coming undone.  Has there ever been a year free from these realities?  A month?  A day?

———————–

The turbulence gets all the press, but there’s more going on here.  Look closer, for a storyline that takes a lot more careful attention to notice.  Breathe.  Pay attention.

Luke 21:27: “Then they will see the Human One coming in a cloud with power.”

They’re the words of Jesus, but the imagery is borrowed.  Daniel had been the first to imagine this. Daniel, as in Daniel and the Lion’s den.  Daniel the interpreter of dreams.  The dreams of bewildered emperors seeking council.  Daniel who himself became a dreamer.  Who, one night, dreamed of horrible beasts destroying and conquering and taking their stand as rulers of the earth – each one corresponding to an empire that had harassed and oppressed his people.  Babylon, Persia, Greece.  Daniel who said I have a dream that one day, despite these beasts of empire, one day a Human One will come as if on the clouds, and rule humanly, such that all humanity and all creation will thrive and flourish.

Jesus evokes Daniel’s dream, and follows it up by saying, “Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Redemption.  Healing.  Wholeness.  A proclamation of emancipation.  Making right what has gone wrong.  If that’s what’s coming upon us, it’s worth paying attention.  But where to look amidst the rubble of late capitalism and post-industrial data-driven society?  What does redemption sound like?  Taste like?  If redemption had a smell, how would it fill the air?

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“There will be signs.”  That’s how Jesus introduces this whole sequence.  “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth.”

It’s a good thing he included that last bit about “on the earth.”  The sun, moon, and stars are out there, a whole other scale.  But we live on the earth.  We walk on the earth.  If there are going to be signs, we need some earth bound signs.  Signs that might show up on a daily walk around the block.  Signs that might come out in conversation with a neighbor.  Signs that might show up at home, doing the kind of work that keeps a home going.  Signs that speak our language, or at least live in the neighborhood.

And here’s a glimpse of what that might be:  The primary sign Jesus points to is “the fig tree and all the trees.”  This affirms a conclusion I too have reached in my adult years.  When in doubt, consult with a tree.  They’ll tell you what you need to know.  Even the prophet Jeremiah, when speaking of a redemption yet to come, can’t help but reference a tree: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and it/he/she shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” (Jer 34:15)

This is how Luke tells it: “Then Jesus told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.  So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kin-dom of God is near.’”

“These things” seems to be referring to the disorientation, loss, confusion, and fear already mentioned.  But now there’s more going on, if you’re willing to pay attention.  “These things,” these signs, also point to the message of the trees, who were here long before us, and have been faithfully providing for us ever since we dismounted from their righteous branches and started walking around this wondrous earth, seeing what we could do with flint and fire, iron and oil.

When the tree shows the slightest sprouting of green, it’s a sign.  Something is growing.  Summer is coming.  That’s a sign even children can read.  You don’t have to be able to read to notice that sign.  We’re skilled at noticing signs of things falling apart.  It takes a particular way of seeing to notice signs of summer, signs that point to the coming of the Human One.  Signs that say “Redemption is near at hand.”

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Our theme this Advent is “Do you sense what I sense?”  We’ll be using all our senses to pay attention.  Since Advent moves us toward the birth of Jesus, a baby born in a small village to an insignificant couple, it’s OK to think small.  It’s OK if the taste of something delightful around the table is a small sign that there is indeed cause for delight.  Or if the smell of something in the air is the smallest sign that you share breath with all the creatures of this world.  We’re not trying to shake the heavens and move the foundations of the cosmos here.  That’s already underway.  We know all about that.  That’s what so often causes us to shut down our senses.  Hunker down.  Guard our brains against the onslaught.  And that’s OK too.  These are fearful times.  We must take care of ourselves.

And as we take care of ourselves, we will open our senses to the message of the trees.  The slightest greenery, the smallest bud, the babe in Bethlehem — a sign.  Can you see it?  Do you hear it?  If someone served it to you, would you let yourself taste and enjoy it?  Savor it on your tongue and feel it slide warm down your throat.  Know that it will find its way into your blood and stream through your body, each cell renewed for another day.

I sense fear and foreboding giving way to calm delight.  I can’t guarantee the outcome, but I can smell it brewing.  It’s a season when we must trust the senses of children whose joy is itself a sign.  Calling all nephews, nieces, grandchildren, Mary’s child amidst the animals – to point us toward redemption.

James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew suggests that what is fearful news for some – the crumbling of things that held up the universe – is liberating news for others – the shaking loose of the old order.  The possibility of something new coming into being right in front of our eyes.

So it is with the entry of Jesus into this world.

“Now when you see these things take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Not far from the kin-dom of God” OR Margaret Unchained

 

Texts: Acts 12:6-11; Mark 12:28-34

If you’re like me, you didn’t grow up observing All Saints or All Souls Day, or even know it was a thing.  Either way, each of us have likely accumulated a few saints over the years.  These are the people, living and dead, who exemplify a life well lived.  We hear their stories and we want to know more.  We don’t need them to be perfect, but we need them to show us something.  Something of love, something of courage, something of God.  Knowing their stories shapes our own. We need these stories = these lives who were, in the words of Jesus, “not far from kin-dom of God.”  They help us see that the kin-dom of God can indeed be not far away.

Hebrews chapter 11 walks through a whole ensemble of characters from the Hebrew Bible – From Adam and Eve’s son Abel, to Abraham and Moses, to Rahab, to the prophets.  It follows this up by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race set out for us.”

Observance of All Saints and All Souls, in our own Protestant way, reminds us of that great cloud of witnesses.  Even though the question “Who’s in your cloud?” sounds like a tagline for a tech company, it would make for an interesting exercise for each of us to do some cloud mapping and compare clouds.  “Who’s in your cloud?”

I like to focus this first Sunday in November on someone from our Anabaptist/Mennonite cloud of witnesses.  I’m guessing our Anabaptist-of-the-year this time around is an unknown.  I hadn’t heard of her until Paula Snyder Belousek, who pastors Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, brought her up at a monthly CDC pastors meeting a little while back.  Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach.  Anyone ever heard of Margaret?  Paula said she often tells her story to youth considering baptism.  After today, Margaret Hellwart will be an official member of the CMC cloud of witnesses.

I want to get into her story by way of this week’s gospel lectionary, from Mark 12.  That’s where we hear that line from Jesus, “you are not far from the kin-dom of God.”  If you were a part of the congregation in 2014 you might recall this passage was one in our Twelve Scriptures Project – when together we selected the Twelve Scriptures that most inform our faith.  These twelve scriptures are still preserved in the colorful installation in the foyer over the bench.  This passage from Mark got the most votes.  So, had it been a one scripture project, this would have been it.

It’s absolutely central because it involves Jesus being asked about what he considers to be central.  A scribe, a member of the elite educated class, approaches Jesus with this question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”  When you boil it all down, Jesus, what’s it all about?

Jesus frequently responded to questions by posing a better question.  But there’s not much to improve on with this one, and Jesus has a direct answer.  He combines a passage from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus.  To paraphrase: “Love God with all your being, with all you are, your heart, soul, mind, strength,” and “Love your neighbor as if they were you and you were them.”  When you boil it all down, it’s about love of God and love of neighbor, and when you boil that down, it’s God who is the Source of all love, continually flowing to us, that enables us to love in the first place.

That’s it.  That’s what’s first of all.  That’s the center.  That’s what most matters.

In the gospels, scribes are mostly portrayed as opposed to Jesus, but this one receives Jesus’s response with gratitude, and adds his own commentary.  He agrees with Jesus’ distillation of all the teachings and all the commandments: love of God, love of neighbor.  The scribe then adds his own two cents: “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe highlights a tension that runs through all religion.  There are the ethical teachings about how we treat one another, and there are the ritual practices.  Love your neighbor – ethics, morals, the relational part of how we live, kindness, mercy, and justice and peace – and the ritual part – perform the burnt offerings, observe the annual holy days, attend church, sing the hymns, take Communion, etc.  These two don’t need to be in tension, but without a deep rootedness in the love of God, ritual easily becomes ritualism, habits of religion can easily dull rather than heighten our senses to what really matters.  To this insight, Jesus tells the scribe: “You are not far from the kin-dom of God.”

This is where Margaret Hellwart comes in.  Because Margaret first became known publicly through her conscientious objection to the ritual parts of the dominant religion of her time.  To put it in more plain language, she got in trouble because she stopped going to church.  Quite a role model for all of us.  But stick with me.

Margaret lived in the village of Beutelsbach.  This is in present day southern Germany, close to Stutthgart.  In the sixteenth century it was in the circle of influence of the Swiss Brethren movement of Anabaptism.  This is the group of Anabaptists who did the first ana-baptizing on record – re-baptizing.  Or, as they believed, their first true baptism in consciously choosing to follow Jesus.  That was January, 1525.

Their teachings on the need for an authentic inner faith appealed especially to those who had little power within the current economic and religious establishment.  There was a renewed emphasis on the teachings of scripture, and the leading of the Spirit.  They rejected the use of violence, the sword, within the church.

Many women found an opening in Anabaptism to exercise their own authority outside the rigid male dominated hierarchy of the state church.

Men and women were martyred for their deviant teachings.  Anabaptism was a far cry from feminism, but it did threaten social harmony organized around patriarchy.

Margaret Hellwart was not a martyr, so there are no images of her in the Martyr’s Mirror.  She was born in 1568, about two generations after those first re-baptisms.  We know hardly anything about her until 1608, when she was 40.  By that time the Swiss Anabaptist movement had been scattered due to persecution.  The heaviest persecution had passed, but Anabaptists were still considered suspect.  Because they believed the church should reflect the life of Jesus, the Anabaptists around Margaret would often skip Sunday worship and Communion at the local Lutheran parish, which they saw as being full of unregenerate people.  Instead, they would meet in homes and a nearby wood to teach one another the scriptures, pray, and sing.  This was actually the primary way of identifying Anabaptists.  Look at the church attendance roles and figure out who in town wasn’t showing up on Sunday.

So, in the spring of 1608, we have our first public record of Margaret.  Her name appears in a report by the Lutheran General Superintendent to the Synod.  They note she’d been warned several times before to attend church and the Lord’s Supper sacrament, but she wasn’t complying.

Margaret had come to same conclusion as the scribe who spoke with Jesus in the temple.  A life defined by love was of greater value than simply going through the rituals.

By the way, if you’re visiting today and you’re Lutheran, we love you, and we’re grateful we’ve had plenty of time over the centuries to work on our relationship.  Just be sure to sign the attendance pads when they’re passed around during the offering so we know you’re in church.

A local ordinance in Stuttgart made specific reference to a group of very energetic Anabaptist women in the area.  Interestingly, most of their husbands weren’t Anabaptists.  An initial policy was to exile these women from the region, but the families couldn’t cope without the wives/mothers present, and the public expense to help care for their families became too heavy.

So we don’t want these women getting out of line and causing things to not hold together, but we really need them…in order to hold things together.

So the authorities came up with a new plan.  They would no longer exile these women.  Instead, they would chain them to the floors of their houses.  The chains would be long enough that they could move about and do domestic type things – cook, and care for children – but they couldn’t leave the house and be in conversation with other Anabaptists.  I’m guessing the guy who suggested this in the committee meeting was given a promotion.

Margaret was the most prominent of these Anabaptist female leaders.  She had two years to avoid the fate of the chain.  She was called before the Consistory, the church court, in 1608 and 1609, each time interrogated about her faith and practice, each time ordered to attend the local parish.  Each time letting them know in no uncertain terms she had no intention of obeying the orders.

The main source I’m drawing from, called Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth Century Reforming Pioneers says this: “Margaret Hellwart appears to have been unusually gifted with self-confidence.”  One piece of evidence for this was at a later trial, after she’d been chained for six years, it was reported that Margaret had a mocking smile on her face.  Because, you know, any sign of self-confidence is surely a mockery to authority.

Perhaps a reason for Margaret’s confidence is that between the years 1610 and 1621, that’s eleven years of house arrest, records show she escaped no fewer than 21 times.  Margaret is the Great Houdini of Anabaptism.  Each time they found her, they would re-assemble the chain around her ankle, and each time she’d find a way out, visiting mostly with other women in the community, speaking to them about the faith.  In one instance, there’s an account of the church superintendent and mayor coming to her house unannounced.  After knocking on the door, Margaret didn’t answer right away.  But they could hear what sounded like her moving through the house and then putting her chains back on before she opened the door.

How many others throughout history, women and men, have had to give the impression of being chained, when they are in fact free in mind, soul, and body?

One of the scriptures Margaret would share, when she was out and about, was the passage we read from Acts chapter 12 – the story of Peter being freed by an angel from his chains in prison, and going out to the other believers to give them encouragement.

It’s unfortunate we don’t know more about Margaret Hellwart.  We have these records, and we have just a few testimonies about her from others.  This is how the Profiles book summarizes the testimony about her faith: “God has commanded that people should love one another.  Any who live as a Christian are by that fact alone a member of the church.”  A friend of Margaret’s named Katharina Koch testified that she didn’t need to attend church because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know.

These are testimonies from a time when the institutions of the day were utterly failing their people.  The structures had become so caught up in preserving their own existence, they had forgotten their initial reason for being.  Teacher, which commandment is greatest of all?

We claim Anabaptism as our lineage because Margaret and others rediscovered what is greatest of all.  The psychologist James Finley has said: “Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.” James Finley, Intimacy: The Divine Ambush, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013)

Considering Margaret’s story makes me think of today’s #MeToo movement.

It is a gift to be living in a time when Margarets are becoming unchained and telling their truth to their sisters and brothers.  Aided by angels, allies, and tremendous courage, Margaret is speaking.  The institutions that prefer her chained are scrambling to do damage control.  We are witnesses to the Spirit at work through her, and we sense that the kin-dom of God has come a bit nearer.

Margaret lived out her life in her home community.  Court records of her end when she was in her early 50’s, meaning either she died then, or the authorities gave up bringing her to trial.  Historian’s best guess is that she buried in an unmarked grave on unconsecrated ground in Beutelsbach.  We consecrate her story today by lighting a candle in her honor.

 

 

 

Self: A widening circle | September 30

Texts: Leviticus 19:18,34; March 8:34-37; Galatians 2:19-20

After four months, we’re at the end of this theme.  That’s a long theme.  We’ve been listening for how we’re Called In to different parts of life.  Called in to the World.  To our City.  How we’re called in to this Congregation and how this congregation calls us in.

And, Self.  Called to be our deepest, truest selves.  Which is another way of talking about how the Spirit wakens us to our participation in the life of God.  Which is love.  Which is life leading to more life.  We’ve got these spheres, these widening circles, where self is both the smallest one, and the one that can transcend all the others.

Thomas Merton calls this “the most important of all voyages.”

This is what he wrote:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous. ( “The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century”, p.11.)

Thomas Merton talks about the abyss that separates us from ourselves, but, paradoxically, one of the things about our Selves, is that it’s the one thing we can’t escape.  You can take a break from a congregation, switch to another, or quit church altogether.  You can move out of the city.  You can go on a retreat from the World, at least temporarily withdraw from the systems that order one’s days.

But wherever we go, we still have to live with our selves.  We can’t just change addresses and leave behind our thoughts, our experiences, our wounds, our addictions, our radiance, the stories others have told us about who we are, the stories we tell ourselves.

These are all the pieces floating around in our heads, coded in our relationships, that we experience as our self.  It’s quite a stew.

So here we all are, sitting here with our selves.

Now, as everyone knows, whenever one needs a definitive word on something, one goes to the biblical book of Leviticus.

Leviticus chapter 19 contains a rather generous view of the self.  Verse 18 was made all the more prominent when Jesus highlighted it as part of the Greatest Commandment.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  A little later in the same chapter is a less familiar saying that takes this even further.  It follows that same pattern.

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

These passages carry a certain assumption about the self – and I would call it a generous assumption.  In the ancient world “love” is used just as much as a statement of loyalty as it is a statement of affection.  To love your king or your master was to be loyal to them, to follow through on one’s obligations toward them, to defend their honor.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  “You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  These statements in Leviticus take for granted the loyalty and commitment one has toward oneself, and then use that as a reference point for how one ought to treat not just the neighbor, but the stranger, the outsider.

And the self is not just some independent isolated figure, but a self-in-community, formed by a particular way of remembering.  Over and over the ancient Israelites are instructed to remember that they were once strangers and foreigners and slaves in the land of Egypt.  This is not just a past experience, but a present part of one’s being.  Part of one’s story, one’s self.  The Holy One liberated them, and they now are to work for the liberation of all people because they know in their very being what it’s like to be a stranger.

This is the beautiful possibility of self about which Leviticus speaks.  Without this sturdy sense of self, the commandments begin to falter.

So…It’s a good thing we always have this sturdy, God-infused sense of self, Right?  We know how to be loyal, and true, and loving toward ourselves, Right?  How wonderful that we are absolutely at peace with ourselves as beloved children of God.  And so it naturally follows that our selves are overflowing with generosity and loving-kindness toward neighbors and those different than us.

….Well…

From his Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, in the middle of the 20th century, in the heat of Cold War madness, with the world on the brink of nuclear suicide, Thomas Merton writes:

What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.

It’s a phrase with echoes of Jesus’ words to the crowds following him: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  That word for life is psuche and can also mean soul, or self.  It’s where we get our word psyche and psychology.

What good is it to gain the whole world, but lose your psyche, your self, in the process?

One of the most intriguing notions of Self I’ve come across recently comes out of a branch of psychology called Internal Family Systems.  This approach sees each person as made up of many different parts, like a family.  Each part has a story, even a personality.  Parts express themselves in relationship to the other parts.  The work of internal family systems includes starting to see and name those parts, those internal family members, be in conversation with them, and help them be flexible and gracious toward each other rather than rigid and domineering.

So, for example, one might discover that one has an anxious child in there, nervous about being accepted in the world.  But this child may not ever be allowed to grow up because of the goal driven Achiever who strives for success at all costs.  The Achiever may be in conflict with the gentle grandmother in there who feels she must always put other people’s needs before hers.  And she might be resentful of the Free-Spirited young adult in there who wants nothing more than to drink in all the beauty of the world.  These, and many more, all in one person.

As therapists were encouraging people to describe their internal family, they began to wonder who was the voice of the client that was able to so accurately and even compassionately name and describe these parts.  They came to call this voice the Self.  And after listening to many, many clients, a clear and consistent picture of the Self emerged.

The Self is the observer of the family, and has the ability to be the leader.  It has inherent wisdom.  It is born whole and doesn’t need to go through stages of development.  It’s so vitally important that when the parts feel that the Self is being threatened, they try to protect it, hide it away and take charge.  But this never works.  The parts think they’re helping, but they’re throwing the whole family out of balance, sending some into exile, losing touch with the Self’s ability to lead and harmonize the parts.  It’s easy for the person to begin believing that they are the anxious child, or the win- at- all- costs achiever.

And so the work becomes enabling these anxious parts to again trust the Self.  To find a way to give voice, for example, to the young adult-ish free spirited one inside, and when the individual begins to feel resentful or anxious about their voice, to have the Self realize which part is feeling this, and give them room to share their bit.

The more each part is listened to with a genuine curiosity, which is exactly what the Self naturally does, the more they relax into a harmonized and even playful relationship with the other parts.

It’s not just that simple, but that’s the basic gist of how Internal Family Systems approaches the inner life, and how it views the Self.

To make the leap back into traditional Christian language, this way of viewing the Self has parallels with the Apostle Paul’s teachings of Christ in us.  One place this shows up is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  So who is the I who is able to talk about this other I who has undergone this death and resurrection?  Paul hasn’t died physically, but he has undergone a kind of death in which a new self has been raised up.  Or a Self that was there all along.  What we might call his true self.  His deepest self.  Or just, his Self.  His self which is now able to see his life and others with compassion and grace.  A self he joyfully identifies as “Christ who lives in me.”

This Self, this Christ in me, is still the same person.  It still has all the quirky and odd things that makes one who one is.  One is still fully in one’s body, one’s family, internal and external.  But one begins to see that who one is is a member of the Christ, a participant in the Divine life.  A small, mortal human and a Self that encompasses all the other widening circles.  This Christ who lives in me, this not I, but Christ, who is my true I, is what allows all of those parts of us to relax and begin to learn a way of living together in peace.  Peace with each other, and peace with other others.  This is our baptismal identity, a gift from God.

Then, the commandments start to fulfill themselves.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  You shall love the stranger as yourself.”  The Christ in me recognizes the Christ in you.

This is the most difficult of all journeys, but, if we are to take Thomas Merton at his word, it is the most important.  It is ultimately not just our journey, but the journey Christ makes with us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City/Garden | September 16

Texts: Jeremiah 29:1-7; Revelation 21: 9-14, 22-25

It’s been observed that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city.

If you want to get a little more technical, the Bible begins in the formless and void, and ends with a warning that if anyone changes any of the words in the book of Revelation that God will bring on them the plagues so vividly described within.

But if we’re willing to treat the first chapter of Genesis as something of an introduction, and if we’re willing to bracket the very end of Revelation as a bit of first century copyright language, theologically aggressive as it may be…and if we set aside that rather than being like a single book, the Bible is more like a library of books, representing a tradition that evolves over a period of several thousand years, now bound together under one cover that we might consider how we carry forward this evolving tradition in our time…If we can go with those parameters, then the Bible does indeed begin in a garden, and end in a city.

From garden to city does make for an intriguing narrative arc.

The garden, of course, is the Garden of Eden, which shows up in Genesis chapter two.  Scholars have identified this as a second, and likely more ancient, creation story, told after the quite different seven day creation story that begins with the earth being formless and void.  Genesis 1 is more cosmic in scale, with humanity not showing up until day six when they are created in the image of God. Genesis 2 focuses on the human being, formed from the dust of the ground, taking their place in a garden. The Garden of Eden.  The human’s role is to till and to keep the garden.  The first job description for the human endeavor is that of gardener.  As a labor saving device, the Creator Yahweh Elohim, has included lots of perennials in this garden, fruit bearing trees, from which humanity may eat, including the Tree of Life.

There is one off limits, and of course the curious humans eventually have to have a taste of it.  The tree of knowledge.  And once you know, you can’t unknow what you know.  There’s no going back.  As the story goes, this leads to exile from the garden.  Humanity will be fruitful and multiply as originally commanded, they will continue to till the ground, but it will take place outside this original gifted garden.  Angelic guardians with flashing swords are placed at the entrance of the Garden of Eden, protecting the way to the Tree of Life.  This dust creature called “human,” this god-image bearer, this knowledge laden creature, will need to find its way in this world beyond Eden.

So the biblical narrative begins.

And where it ends, in that final and fantastical book of the biblical library, Revelation – John’s vision, nightmare, heavenly dream, on the island of Patmos.  Where it ends, is a city.  As this vision draws to its climactic conclusion this is what John says:

“And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev 21:2)  The worn out earth is renewed, not as a pristine garden, but as a city.

John goes into great detail, even about the dimensions of the city, as if he’s reading the city planning guidelines.  The walls, the gates, the construction materials consisting of various rare and precious stones.

The city takes on a cosmopolitan flare when John says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.”

The city becomes the place where the Divine and the human finally live together in harmony.

Also in the city is the long lost tree of life, those angelic guards finally relieved of their duties.  The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

John envisions where the linear time of history flows into the ocean of eternity, where the heavens and the earth are renewed.  And it looks like a city, gates wide open, all peoples and cultures welcome, with a tree offering itself as a primary care physician, a healer.

In the biblical imagination, we live in between Eden and the New Jerusalem.  The garden the city.

This summer was actually the second Sabbatical I’ve had as a pastor.  The first was while we were with the Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  Much of that Sabbatical was spent back on the farm where I grew up, where my parents still live, an hour northwest of here in Bellefontaine.  The plan was pretty simple.  Have some unhurried time outside of the city, back to the farm, back to nature.  I would help with gardening and farm related work in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go to a coffee shop and read lots of Wendell Berry, and other such writers.  Having free lodging was a strategic perk, paid in kind through free labor.

For a little over a month, this is what we did.  It was like the Bible in reverse.  A self-exile from the city, into the garden prepared for us by my earthly parents.

Not far into this time, it became apparent that the previous split, at least in my mind, between garden and city was a false one.

A garden, rather than a pure manifestation of nature, is a highly managed environment.  To till and keep a garden is to excerpt consciousness alongside the mysterious power of life.  To choose what grows and what gets pulled up.  To select the best of what has grown and plant its seeds for the coming year.  By careful and wise tilling and keeping, the gardener has the capacity to not only maintain a landscape, but to improve it, at least in our way of defining improvement – to increase diversity, and expand what is helpful, to hold back what is harmful.  To offer something even more abundant to the next generation, fully aware that what we now have to tend is an inheritance from previous generations.

To garden is to partner with the wonder and miracle of life and be so bold as to choose what grows and what doesn’t.  And sometimes, of course, despite best efforts, it just won’t grow.

A city is a highly managed environment.  Every part of it an eclectic mixture of human forethought and unintended consequences; cooperative design and individual will; environmental opportunities and limitations; necessity and excess; a constant interplay between human consciousness and other forces.  One generation’s creative impulse inherited by future generations to revise, remodel…or get trapped in cycles and structures as powerful and potentially destructive as a plague of locusts.

Perhaps the journey from garden to city is not such a long journey after all.  There is a powerful human element in both, a burden, or gift of responsibility.

On this Sabbatical Abbie and I spent a week in California, half of it at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  We saw the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman.  We stayed in John Muir Lodge.

As we soon learned, John Muir is the patron saint of these parks.  He’s the Scottish immigrant to the US who explored and wrote eloquently about the natural beauty of the American West.  He founded the Sierra Club and strongly advocated for the creation of National Parks.

In hallways of the lodge there were color enhanced photos of the California Sierra landscape.  They looked like the kind of pictures that, in another setting, would have Bible verses under them.  A sunset over a mountain range: “And God saw that it was good.”  Towering sequoia trees: “For God so loved the world….” Or something like that.  You know what I’m talking about.  But instead of Bible verses, there were quotes from John Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”  “Between every two pines is a doorway into a new world.”  I have to say in this case I preferred the John Muir quotes.

But John Muir had a blind spot.  This I discovered after some further reading about him and the California Sierras.  When he saw the Sequoias and the great Yosemite Valley, he believed it to be nature in its pure form.  A wilderness planted only by the hand of God.  Like Eden before the humans got a hold of it.  He advocated that it be protected from human encroachment, which was becoming a major problem as settlers poured in from the east.  Thus the national parks.

What he failed to see was that this land was not untouched wilderness.  It was more of a garden, even a city of some kind.  Like other parts of the US, Native Americans had been managing these lands for millennia, especially through the strategic use of fire.  Over the generations it had become a park/garden/village for people who had partnered with life and God.

But rather than bearing the names of these people who had created a civilization among the trees, the largest tree in the world is now named after a US General who fought along the Western Frontier for the extermination of these Indians, thus protecting and conserving the wilderness lands.  I wish they had read Revelation which says the tree of life is for the healing of the nations.

Decades after the Indians were gone, the conservationists began complaining about the brush and wild growth overtaking their pristine parks.  Only recently are we coming to understand the importance of careful human partnership with the wildlife and plant life to maintain an environment in which all can thrive.

Ever since eating from the proverbial tree of knowledge we as a species have been applying our vast and often short sited knowledge to shape the world around us.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  Who gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  It’s a rather terrifying and remarkable responsibility.  It’s the same kind of work we do every day on the soul level.  What gets to grow, what gets rooted out?  What do we build? What do we destroy?  What gets our attention?  Where do we direct our energy?  How might we partner with life and God to tend the miracle of our lives?

In Jeremiah 29, the prophet writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  They had been uprooted from Jerusalem, and were now in a foreign land, a great city.  His wise counsel points them toward a new life in the city/garden in which they find themselves.  They are to settle in.  To send down roots.  To plant urban gardens and tend them.  To have children, and grandchildren.  To seek the shalom, the welfare, the peace of the city.  Because their wellbeing was now tied up to the wellbeing of that city.  As they tend their lives, as they live as a community, they will partner with God and life in shaping something beautiful and sustaining for themselves and future generations.

Whether Columbus is your Babylon of exile or your familiar and beloved Jerusalem, it is the city/garden in which we now live.  In which the Creator seeks to create with you a community of shalom.  May we tend our lives well, so that we can tend to this place, these neighborhoods, our neighbors, these animals and trees around us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Sabbatical…from city to country. Same thing

 

 

World: Grief, Beauty | September 9

Mark 3:7-15; 19b-22; 31-35

 It’s the first week of Sabbatical, the morning of the first Wednesday of June.  Our family is up and out of bed.  The energy level is well above average for this time of day.  School is out, my email auto-reply is on, our bags are packed up, and we’re about to be off.  Our flight to Guatemala departs in just a few hours.  Among the many things on the pre-departure checklist was putting a hold on newspaper delivery, starting…tomorrow.  Might as well have something to read at the airport.

On our way out, I grab the paper off the front porch and open it for a sneak peek.  I’m not expecting much worth dwelling on.  But there on the front page of the Dispatch was something to dwell on:  A large image with the heading “Too much to bear.”  It was a picture of a grieving mother, in, of all places, Guatemala.  The caption noted that her name was Lilian Hernandez, and that 36 of her extended family members were presumed dead after the eruption of the Fuego volcano three days prior.

We’d known that the Volcan de Fuego, the Volcano of Fire as it’s called, in south-central Guatemala had erupted that Sunday.  It catches your eye when you’ve been planning a trip for months and the airport where you’re supposed to land gets shut down two days prior.  It had re-opened, and my thoughts had turned to whether we’d have to adjust our plans to visit nearby Antigua our first weekend there.  Then, as we’re heading out the door for our family adventure to start off the World-themed portion of the Sabbatical, a gentle invitation.  You want to encounter the World?  Here is the World.  Let a grieving mother be your tour guide.  Or, You want to encounter the World?  Here she is.  The World is s grieving mother.  After reading through the paper I recycled the pages, except for the front, which I still have.

There’s a story in Mark’s gospel where the mother of Jesus makes a rare appearance.  Although she’s not grieving in this one, at least not in any public way.    It’s in chapter three, early on, when Jesus is still emerging from obscurity.  He’s attracting crowds, what scripture often calls “a great multitude.”  He is healing and casting out harmful spirits.  He’s attracting students, a smaller group willing to set aside life as usual to follow him full time.  And he’s already attracting enemies.  Just like the rest of Mark’s narration style, it’s all happening rather quickly.

Now he’s home, and, as Mark says, “the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.  When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

After some heated exchange with the local scribes, we’re told that Jesus’ family has arrived – his mother, and his siblings.  They’re standing outside.  They call for him.  Someone in the crowd speaks up to Jesus and says, “Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.”

Jesus’ answer is one of those moments when we can almost feel the world shift beneath our feet.  He looks around at everyone in the room, all those people so up his face he can’t even catch a bite to eat.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks, and proceeds to answer his own question…”Here are my mother, and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

We don’t know how Mary, the mother Jesus responds to this, how she hears these words from her son.  As usual, Mark moves on fast.  Right away Jesus is back outside, by the lake, or better, on the lake, teaching a crowd from a boat, spinning a parable about a farmer who flings seeds over every kind of soil and watches as some of them grow into a harvest 100 times what was planted.

The wideness of that parable, and the wideness of Jesus’ new definition of family is one of the primary themes of the gospels.  Healthy families care for one another, they grieve and rejoice with each other, they have a strong sense of inhabiting the same relational web, such that what happens to one member affects other members.  And here, Jesus proposes a notion of family that essentially encompasses all of humanity.  Who are my sisters and my brothers and mothers and fathers?  Here they are.  There they are.  Not bounded by biology or tribe or national boundaries.

It’s a big thought.  It’s a big world.

Mary goes to round up her family and is confronted with the idea that the other women and men in the room are now just as much a part of this new kind of extended family her son is rounding up.

You head out the door and make sure you have your whole family in tow.  You glance at the news and look in the face of a grieving woman you’ve never met before and hear the question: Who is my daughter, my sister, my mother?  Here she is.

This idea of a global family in which we are all siblings is quite a bit easier for us to imagine than Jesus’ original audience.  We can fly anywhere in the world in hours, communicate in seconds.  We have these amazing images taken from cameras that have broken free of the earth’s gravity, pointing back at our planet.  The pictures are, of course, void of national boundaries.  This is all now basic grade school curriculum.

What we’re still working out, is how to hold this reality, how to walk toward it and through it with sturdy compassion.  How to not be afraid.  How to not be overwhelmed.

There are tragedies reported every day, whether you get you news by paper or radio or some digital platform or combination thereof.  The scope and scale of it pretty quickly overwhelms our capacity to empathize deeply with every situation.  It is, as the June 6 Dispatch heading stated, “Too much to bear.”  For most of human history our grief has been confined to the losses among the relatively small collection of families with whom we shared life.  Now, on a planet of seven and a half billion people, we start off our days by checking in on the most tragic thing going.

How to hold this?  How to release this?  How to be in these times?  How to care and feel and remain grounded in one’s being?

In Guatemala we never met Lilian Hernandez, who had unknowingly made the front page news in Columbus, Ohio.  As the three weeks progressed we did learn more from the stories of these Guatemalan brothers and sisters, like sitting for a while on a branch of the family tree you’d only glanced at before. Seeing what the world looks like from that perch.  We climbed the massive Mayan pyramids of Tikal and learned that the civilizations’ fall over 1000 years ago was likely due to deforestation and drought, cutting down all their forests to fuel the fires to make the cement mixture to hold their towering structures together…a cautionary tale of empire.

We learned how the devastation from the Guatemalan Civil War from the 1960’s to the mid 90’s still impacts every aspect of Guatemalan society.  How our country’s CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected president in the 50’s whose land reform program looked too much like Communism and threatened the business interests of the US based United Fruit Company.  How our religion of Christianity was used alongside the genocidal policies of President Rios Montt in the 80’s.  We ate supper at the house of a North American family working for Mennonite Central Committee who had plenty to say about how displacement from ancestral land had everything to do with the fact that there were poor communities living at the base of an active volcano, their homes and family members now gone.  (Excellent essay by MCCer Jack Lesniewski HERE).  We heard from a pastor and professor who assured us that desperate Guatemalans will continue to immigrate to the US no matter how cruel they will be treated here.

The world is a grieving mother.

But there was another moment on the trip that captures a larger picture.  After that time in Guatemala Abbie flew back to Columbus with Lily an Ila.  Eve and I flew on to Colombia to visit with our sister congregation in Armenia, Comunidad Christiana Menonita de Paz.  

As we soon learned, the typical greeting was for men to shake hands, and for women to kiss on the cheek.  When a man and woman from the church greeted each other, it was often with a kiss on the cheek.  The longer we stayed, the more we were inducted into this practice.  One of the things I noticed was that when someone new joined the group, they would go around and greet everyone in this way.  Even if there were 10 or 20 people in the room.  People would stop what they were doing, and personally acknowledge the presence of the new person.  It was lovely to watch.

On the second day of our stay, we were eating lunch with a family who had invited another church family to the meal.  One of the last to come through the door was the teenage son of the visiting family.  He was, I must say, a remarkably handsome guy.  He looked like he could have played on the Colombian national soccer team, and World Cup was being played during our visit.  Amidst the other lively commotion in the room, he started making his rounds.  He came over and shook my head, then turned, and, to a still culturally-adjusting Eve, gave a gentle kiss on the cheek.  I would like to say that Eve smiled back, but I think she was a bit too stunned to respond.  She, by the way, has given me permission to tell this story.

The world is a grieving a mother, but it’s also a beautiful boy who, when we least expect it, greets us with a kiss on the cheek, as if to say, “I am here, and you are here, and that is a beautiful thing.”

Beauty surrounds and sustains us.  It elevates our spirits and inducts us into its family.  It’s what weaves its way through so much of our poetry, including the Psalms.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 8 to marvel at the magnitude of creation’s glory alongside their own smallness.  It’s what causes the writer of Psalm 19 to declare that creation continually pours out speech and knowledge for us to see and hear.  The writer of Psalm 139 has an overwhelming sense that they, like the world itself, are “wonderfully made.”  As if beauty, like grief, is sometimes “too much to bear.”

These must have been the eyes with which Jesus looked out across the great multitude.  Where some saw sickness, he saw a hidden wholeness.  Where some saw demons, he saw a beloved child of God.

If you can’t remember the last time you’ve been kissed on the face by the World or the Christ or someone you claim as family of whatever kind, perhaps it’s time for a Sabbatical.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  The Mayans no longer live among the pyramids of Tikal, but they haven’t gone away.  About half of Guatemalans are indigenous, Mayans.  They continue to struggle, but they are finding their way.  Along Lake Atitlan we walked through the town of San Juan and visited a whole network of cooperatives, run by Mayan women.  Weaving, honey, coffee, herbal medicines, chocolate.  They are practicing an economics of beauty while caring for one another.  Buying their products was a joy.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  We met briefly with Gilberto Flores who teaches at the seminary where we had our apartment in Guatemala City.  Gilberto was a pastor, and many years ago had baptized a young man named Rios Montt.  One Sunday in 1982, when Rios Montt was president of Guatemala, he visited the church Gilberto was pastoring, Casa Horeb, a place where we worshiped one Sunday.  The President was accompanied with a group of armed guards.  From the pulpit, Gilberto announced that these men were welcome in their congregation, but their guns were not, they’d have to leave them outside.  After the service Gilberto told Rios Montt directly that he must stop killing the poor.  It ended their relationship and led to a series of death threats.  Gilberto continues to be a minister of peace to this day, including having served many years as a leader within Mennonite Church USA.

Beauty, a hidden wholeness, beloved children of God.  On two of our weekend trips we got a closer look at Volcan de Fuego.  From a safe distance it was a marvel, still smoking, powerful and alive.

The poet Rilke sees his life unfolding in widening circles, including more, and more, and more of what is.

 

This is our world.  Grief and beauty.  They do not cancel each other out, but they travel together as we circle around God, around the primordial tower.  To live our lives in widening circles is to gain capacity for both.  We learn to behold beauty in such a way that it charges our senses with greater sensitivity to grief.  We learn to carry grief in such a way that it unlocks new realms of beauty.

This journey is traveled among family – the living and the dead.  It is ours to recognize that this is so, and to live with this good news.  We are being rounded up into this ever widening family that Christ is calling in.

——————

“Widening Circles”

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

BY Rainer Maria Rilke Book of Hours, I 2

translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows